You Sell One Thing: Reactions
People expect a certain reaction from a business, and when you pleasantly exceed those expectations, you’ve somehow passed an important psychological threshold.
—Richard Thalheimer, founder, Sharper Image
My wife, Nicole, and I were staying at a big-brand hotel for a couple of days while I was on the road shooting Bar Rescue. I’m laughing at myself as I write this, but I did nothing but complain from the moment I arrived. Our room was the size of a postage stamp, while the bed was too high off the ground, all of which left me feeling like an awkward giant. It was obvious that the flaccid bacon on my dinnertime sandwich had been cooked the previous morning. And why were the knife and fork the size of airline flatware? Even though I’m a positive person, it’s very easy for little disappointments to bum me out. Nowadays, it’s hard not to automatically home in on low hospitality standards. It’s frustrating because everything I see is easily preventable. I have to force myself to blow these annoyances off—otherwise, I’d never be able to enjoy a dinner, or just about anything I do in my life.
Admittedly, I am a bit cocky when it comes to guest standards, but not without justification: I have more than thirty-five years of experience working in every aspect of the hospitality business. I know hotels, restaurants, bars, dives, burger joints, and nightclubs are capable of best-of-class excellence. I wasn’t always this sensitive—standards didn’t make it onto my radar until I was a few years into the business. I’ll never forget walking through a major hotel with the vice president of product development for Hyatt International, Frank C. Ansel III. Youthful exuberance made me come off like a big shot even though I was nothing of the sort. We were holding a management and entrepreneurship seminar for the company’s East Asia employees. The food and beverage director of the hotel knew we were coming, so he had spruced up the place. Everything at the hotel looked amazing to me, but twenty minutes into the walkthrough, Frank looked at his manager with obvious displeasure. I asked Frank why he was upset.
“You think he’s doing things well because you look but you don’t see,” Frank said. He pulled me over to a table and pointed out that the service plates weren’t turned the same way, nor was the flatware placed consistently at each setting. Frank nodded toward a waiter who was pouring out of the side of a pitcher instead of the spout—a real no-no in table service. These are subtle things, but they demonstrated a lack of standards and attention to detail. When “little” things are off, it means more important standards are also probably lacking. That line, “You look but you don’t see,” has stayed with me ever since. After that day, I have never been able to walk past a dirty carpet or a cracked wall without reacting. I notice everything. Businesses are defined by their details. Now, when I look, I see.
Think about this: Two people get dressed in the morning. One person throws on whatever clothes are available; the other takes the time to select an outfit and make sure it’s clean, pressed, and put together. Who makes the better impression? The carefully dressed person is thought of as calmer, more powerful, smarter, and more thoughtful than the sloppy one. In an experiment to test perceptions and appearance, teaching assistants who wore formal clothes were perceived as more intelligent than those who dressed more casually. A Harvard study found that women who wore makeup were considered more competent and likable than their barefaced counterparts. (I love this kind of science because it has practical applications for business owners—that’s why I use a lot of it in Bar Rescue and in my work as a consultant.)
These lessons are as relevant for businesses as they are for individuals. In a joint study conducted by Cornell and Columbia Universities, consumers who encountered either a delay in being seated in a restaurant by a host or a delay in getting a check from their server evaluated overall service more negatively than customers who didn’t experience those two specific delays. Maybe this seems like a no-brainer to you, but obviously many restaurants don’t think enough about it, considering how long it often takes someone to seat you or to bring over the bill once you’ve requested it.
Think about it. When a customer’s expectations for your business don’t match reality (e.g., “They are slow when they should be faster, ergo they do not care about me or my time.”), his or her perception is effected, oftentimes permanently. Shoddy business presentation and practices affect how much value a customer places on your brand.
In short, your customers notice “off” stuff—don’t you? They (justifiably) believe that your less-than-stellar details are “business as usual” and therefore an accurate measure of your entire business. Generally, though, you won’t hear that negative feedback because nine out of ten people who have a negative experience with a business don’t mention problems (even on social media); they just never return. Pretty frightening statistic, isn’t it? I doubt that’s the reaction you’re looking for.
So let me try this one out on you. When someone asks what you do for a living, how do you answer? Whatever it is, however you describe it, you’ve probably got it wrong. That’s because you aren’t in the service, food, beverage, beauty, law, accounting, merchandising, retail, hospitality, sales, facilities, entertainment—had enough?—fashion, media, education, technology, or whatever other industry you define as your business. I believe you’re in the business of customer and employee reactions. And I have four rules that govern that belief:
1. Everything we do is part of a process, never a result.
2. Every business process, step, or communication must create a positive customer reaction each and every time.
3. That reaction is the product.
4. Any business, no matter what it is, lives or dies by the customer reactions it creates.
My overarching philosophy is this: all successful business is about creating the right reactions in customers. The way you present yourself and your business, your curb or Web appeal, your logo, where you put your products or how you place your content, the color of your marketing pieces, price points, dress code—everything you do in your business—creates reactions. The best reactions always make the most money.
I live to create employee and customer reactions. Whether you’re in San Francisco, New York, or Exeter, New Hampshire, the product or “vehicle” you use to get a reaction may differ, but the feelings perpetuated by the way you do business are universal.
The theory of reactions is part of cultural anthropology—it’s in our DNA. The concept of creating a response is as primal as it gets, a constant that has existed throughout time and across cultures. The leader of an African tribe has the same dynamic set of management skills, confidence, and leadership ability as the head of a corporation in Cleveland. The priest who works hard on his Sunday sermon ...